NOAA Teacher at Sea
Onboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter
May 15 – June 5, 2015
Mission: Right Whale Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean
Date: May 17, 2015
Weather Data from the Bridge:
Air Pressure: 1018.34 millibars
Air Temperature: 11.3 degrees C
Wet Bulb Temperature: 11.0 degrees C
Relative Humidity: 97%
Wind Speed: 10.4 knots
Wind Direction: 33. 69 degrees
Science and Technology Log
The Right Whale cruise that I am on has several objectives. The main objective is to collect photo identification and biopsy samples of baleen whales, specifically Right Whales and Sei Whales, and apply dermal tags to the whales via small boats (RHIB = Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat) launched from the stern on the Gordon Gunter.
Once the targeted whales are tagged, a team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) will conduct oceanography sampling around the tagged whales using a CTD (which measures conductivity, temperature, and depth). The CTD will be deployed every 20 minutes for as long as the tag stays on the whale and will collect vertical profile data including conductivity, temperature, depth, and information about zooplankton using a video plankton recorder (VPR) and an optical plankton counter (OPC).
Zooplankton will also be sampled via ring nets off the ship or the small boats. Another objective is to do visual scans and report observations from the observation deck via large binoculars referred to as “big eyes”. These observations will be tied into acoustical data being collected by two autonomous vehicles, referred to as gliders, which are surveying the Great South Channel, and sonabouys that can be deployed from the ship or small boats. The gliders can detect and classify the calls of various baleen whales almost in real time. Today let’s talk about identification of various marine mammals that we have seen and might see on this cruise. In future blogs we will look into the acoustics of marine mammals and zoo plankton.
Every day there is a watch schedule with three scientists on watch at once, unless there is fog, and then there is only one monitoring the weather. These scientists stand above the bridge with two big eyes, one on the port side (left) and one on the starboard side (right). The third scientist is stationed at the computer inputting sightings.
Via the big eyes, you can record the bearing of the sighting, somewhere between 270 and 90 degrees, and the distance of the sighting, in reticles. The binoculars are at 25 power, that is an object looks 25 times larger than seen with the naked eye. The scientists are on the half hour rotation between the three stations, starting with the port side, then the computer, then starboard side. Watch starts at 6 am and ends at 8 pm (or until it gets dark). Data collected for a sighting includes the type of animal (right whale, sei whale, minke whale, unidentified dolphin, unidentified whale, etc…), number seen, number of calves, swim direction, certainty of identification, and what was the indicator (blow, breach, body…). So in order to help out with watch, one needs to learn how to recognize the different species that one might see.
The target species of the cruise are North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis), which are an endangered species and are protected under both the U.S Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Right whales are identified by: their “V” shaped blow, a large head with an arched jaw, black and white patterns on the head (callosities are the white), and no dorsal fin or hump.
Another targeted species are sei whales (Balaenoptera borealis), which are another endangered species. Sei whales are large whales reaching almost 19.5 meters (64 feet) long. Sei whales are identified by: their pointed head with one ridge, a tall dorsal fin, and seeing the blow and the dorsal fin at the same time.
Other whales include humpback whales, fin whales, and minke whales. Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are identified by: knobs on their head, white or black undersides (ventral), a low dorsal fin with a broad base that can have distinct nicks or scarring, an S-shaped fluke with a distinct notch, and unique white or black coloring on the ventral side of their fluke. Humpback whales also tend to breach (come up out of the water) and flap their tails and flippers. Fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) are commonly mistaken for Sei Whales and vice versa.
Luckily the data collected usually groups the two whales, fin/sei. Fin whales have a dorsal fin that sits far back, like a sei whale. They have a lower, white right jaw and a chevron pattern behind their blowhole. Minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) have a pointed head with a ridge, they are small in size, and have a pointed fluke. Their blow is not usually seen. Other marine mammals that can be seen include dolphins (various species) and seals.
Today is day three on the ship. We set sail from Newport, RI on Friday at 5 pm and headed towards the Great South Channel, which is located to the southeast of Cape Cod between the Nantucket Shoals and Georges Bank. Both the Nantucket Shoals and Georges Bank are remnants of past glaciations and have been subsequently modified by marine transport. The Great South Channel provides a link between the Gulf of Maine and the Northwest Atlantic Ocean and is funnel-shaped with a wider and deeper end toward the north and the Gulf of Maine. Water flowing in the channel results in the upwelling of nutrients and zooplankton that whales, especially right whales, like to feed on. The autonomous acoustic gliders picked up signals of whales in the area so we headed towards those waypoints.
We had a beautiful day on Saturday, May 16th. We woke up to glassy water and blue skies. The watch started around lunchtime and we had an active day of spotting whales and other marine animals. We saw humpback whales, minke whales, fin whales and sei whales. We also saw lots of dolphins playing, a seal or two and some basking sharks. Towards the later afternoon/early evening we came across a group of sei whales and we stopped the ship to observe. A sonabouy was deployed in the midst of the whales. It was a fun experience watching these whales swim around the sonabouy for hours (marked by a small orange blow-up float). Last light, three of the scientists saw two right whales, recognized by their distinct V-shaped blow.
In the middle of the afternoon we performed the safety drills, including mustering on the correct deck with our life jacket and immersion suit, also known as the “gumby suit”. We then went back to our rooms and had to put on our “gumby suit” in under a minute, without assistance. This is not an easy feat and after doing it once with a large size (which was way to big for me), I had to do it again with a small size.
Sunday, May 17th, we woke to the ships’ foghorn. We had fog for most of the morning and off and on during the day. When fog occurs the person who would normally be on the computer (the center) is stationed up on the bridge observing the weather. I was a bit intimidated about going on the bridge, but once there had some wonderful conversations with the Captain and several of the crew. I ended up spending an hour and half up there (well past my shift). Today was not as active with whales, but we saw several dolphins playing off the bow of the ship.